Freedom of Religion: The Controversy over Apostasy
Much has been said in recent years concerning the law of apostasy in Islam. Again, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the vast majority of today’s countries, reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

On the other hand, Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “It is not legal [to spill] the blood of a Muslim except in one of three cases: the fornicator who has previously experienced legal sexual intercourse, a life for a life and one who forsakes his religion and separates from the community.” (Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim.) The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is also reported to have said, “Whoever changes his religion is to be killed.”  (Recorded by al-Bukhari and others.)

These texts from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) have led the vast majority of Muslim scholars to conclude that the punishment for apostasy from Islam in Islamic Law is death. It is true that there are some, especially contemporary writers, who opt for very different conclusions and argue that such a death penalty is a misunderstanding of Islamic Law. This is not the proper place to enter into such a debate. Instead, this author shall presume that the opinion that has been held by the vast majority of the scholars is the correct opinion. This entire discussion, therefore, shall be in the light of that conclusion. If the harsher punishment can be “defended” from the current onslaught, any lesser punishments will, obviously, be even more so defensible.